Perhaps no one knows better what Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is going through than former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
Chafee, who last night confirmed he would launch an independent bid for governor in 2010, became the poster boy for the plight of the moderate Republican in 2006 when he beat back a strong primary challenge from the right only to lose to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election. In discussing his decision to leave the party on Tuesday, Specter cited Chafee's loss as a key example of the party's shrinking appeal.
Since his loss, Chafee has left the Republican Party and become an independent. Many political observers noted during his campaign that by ditching the GOP then, he might have easily staved off defeat.
“I certainly thought of that,” Chafee said about the possibility of changing parties himself. “But I would have been switching into the minority party, which is very different than what Arlen's doing.
“I certainly thought of that,” Chafee told The Daily Beast. “But I would have been switching into the minority party, which is very different than what Arlen's doing. I would have been going from a 55-seat majority into the minority party with a Republican president and it would have been retribution against Rhode Island. I didn't have any good choices.”
For Chafee, it was truly the worst of all worlds. Despite support from establishment Republicans like President George W. Bush, he had to expend major resources on defeating primary opponent Steve Laffey, leaving Chafee weakened in the general election. But the right wing of the party had so destroyed the GOP's national brand that Chafee was defeated despite being highly popular among voters and holding left-of-center on issues ranging from the Iraq war to gay marriage to the environment. Specter only narrowly avoided a similar primary loss to the more-conservative Pat Toomey in 2004, and faced a repeat of the same matchup in 2010.
Specter told CNN Tuesday that “had Linc Chafee been elected in 2006, the Republicans would have controlled the Senate in 2007 and '08, and I would have been chairman of a committee.”
According to Chafee, the recent series of right-wing primary campaigns against centrist Republicans is a major source of weakness for the party, especially given that these campaigns often target lawmakers in blue states, where only moderate candidates have a chance in the general election. But even if the more-moderate incumbents survive the challenge, they'll only be weaker against the Democratic candidate later on.
“It's the money that pours in that ultimately loses the seat to the Democrats,” Chafee said. “That's what happened to me in Rhode Island in 2006: I spent all my money fending off a right-wing Republican in the most Democratic state in the country. The Democrats don't do that. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad in North Dakota, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor in Arkansas—they don't have to fend off left-wing primaries because they might vote with George W. Bush on some issues.”
Despite his longtime call for moderation in the Republican Party, Chafee said he would not make it a major message of his gubernatorial campaign.
”We have tough economic issues to address, so I can't be diverted with national issues,” he said. “People want to get to work here in Rhode Island.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.